Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Little Secrets

 

 

Maurice Warminster, the winner of practically every major poetry prize in the country, the man to whom Kerrie Shapiro had dedicated Little Secrets, her first collection of poems; the man who was Kerrie’s cherished thesis advisor, who told her to give herself over to poetry, that sideways was the best way into a poem, to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange; the man who, in defiance of the MFA program’s very strict policy, had bedded her many times including once, memorably, at a conference in San Miguel de Allende; Maurice Warminster who declined to recommend Kerrie’s manuscript to his friend Jack at Stonington Press or Melvin at Megillah Press, claiming that he had made a new year’s resolution not to pull strings for students (even as Kerrie knew that he was a consummate puller of strings); Maurice Warminster, who also had begged off blurbing her book, though Kerrie made the case that their closeness should mean something to him; Kerrie’s own Maurice, whom she loved still and anyway, was to give the John Keats Society reading at Gailor Community College where Kerrie was now an adjunct in English comp. The news that Maurice was coming shot through her breast like a golden arrow.

Gailor spared no expense gussying up the campus for the honored guest. The buildings and grounds crew repainted, in a handsome shade of ochre, the auditorium in which Maurice Warminster would speak. Workers varnished the old and slightly wobbly wooden lectern from which he would deliver his complex meditations on love and independence, his political poems, and the narratives of his working-class youth.

Kerrie found a publisher for Little Secrets. The book, released four months before by a small literary press in Evanston, had a lovely lime green cover. On the back were laudatory blurbs by three well-known poets. Kerrie could have mailed the book to Maurice, but hearing of his visit to Gailor, she set her heart on placing an inscribed copy in his hands. The scene floated before her eyes: they would sit together on a secluded garden bench, renewing if only for half an hour, their intellectual, if not physical, passion. She had so much to tell him, longed for his advice, missed his gray eyes, his hippyish chin-length hair, the practiced feel of his embrace. They had not seen each other for a year.

Aware that Maurice never replied to emails or letters, Kerrie phoned her mentor two weeks before the reading and left a message. He did not call back. Undeterred, she called him several more times and finally reached him days before his arrival. After her flurry of I-miss-you’s and I-love-you’s followed by Maurice’s cunning elided retorts, “And I you,” Kerrie proposed that they have coffee or, better yet, a stroll together through campus. Gailor was lovely in early fall, the green of the trees and lawns against the red and orange brick of the buildings called to mind the work of Kazimir Malevich, a Russian painter he admired. She could not wait to give him her book.

“I will have very little time,” he demurred. “Only half a day.” A brief darkness, like the shadow of a bird, passed over Kerrie.

“But surely you will have a little time for me, Maurice.” For they had been naked together, meandered for hours deep in discussions of poetry, politics, life, and love. He had shared secrets: who had affairs with whom, who showed great promise then disappeared from the scene, who was bipolar, who divorced. Such gossip from Helicon, outrageous, hilarious, sorrowful.

Kerrie yearned to tell Maurice of her poet’s life, not so much secrets but things that would make him proud—her work in progress, writers she met, where she was publishing. And the good reviews her book had received—written mostly by friends, but still. And she had a small following on campus, was mentoring a promising student. Sure her Amazon sales sucked, but didn’t every poet’s Amazon sales suck?

“The department head has scheduled every moment for us, dear.”

Again, the bird shadow. “By ‘us,’ do you mean you and me?”

“By ‘us,’ I mean Olivia and me. Olivia is the woman I am seeing. Didn’t you hear about Olivia? She’s marvelous. A poet, the best in the class. She speaks three languages. And paints. And plays competitive golf.” He chuckled mentioning the golf. Kerrie was teed off.

“Did you have to bring her here? This is my place, Maurice.”

“She’s my partner. We travel together. That’s what sweethearts do.”

Kerrie tried to parry the idea that the partner travel was planned out of meanness, though she suspected that it was. Maurice could cut with a sly knife. Weren’t his refusals of a publishing connection and a blurb just those sorts of jabs? Time, separation, sparser and sparser phone conversations had diminished their intimacy, flattened their heart-to-hearts to cordialities. Twice before she had protested his shrinking interest in her and tried to revive their bond: once by publishing a pithy essay about his work, once by abject pleading. She could not turn his mind. Now their tie was as split and withered as a dead squash vine, and he would come to trample on its remains.

 Even so, the memory of their affair strode through her thoughts. The lyrics of Little Secrets stood as a record of their passion. She thought of the inscription she had penned in his copy, “To Maurice, mentor and true friend, forever in my heart, this book is for you, for us. All my love, Kerrie.” How those words gurgled over the top. She wondered if she should give him an uninscribed copy. Or no book at all. She dismissed the latter. Why gift him with relief, especially when he was about to parade his new favorite before her?  “To M. W.” was printed, at this point it glared like a typo, on the dedication page. The bolder statement, the truer statement, would be to present him with the book. Anything else would be denial, an act of yielding, of scampering away in defeat.

“Won’t I see you at the dinner before the event?” asked Maurice.

Kerrie had received no such invitation. “What dinner?” she asked as evenly  as possible.

“The dinner at the home of the departmental chair. I thought you’d be on the list. Or maybe only tenured people. The chair, what’s her name? Donna Something, knows you studied with me. But you know how these things work, hierarchies, protocols, whose ass needs kissing, et cetera, et cetera.”

Again, the Maurice of the sly knife. A discreet suggestion to the chair, Donna Grabowski, with that chuckle of his, about skirting an awkward situation. Or perhaps he preempted the issue with a generous little speech about his desire to meet her full-time and tenured people. Kerrie, humiliated, the tip of her ear burning, managed to sign off without sobbing. That came in the privacy of her apartment.

Alone in her bed, shifting from side to side on her single-girl pink satin sheets, Kerrie wept on and off for an hour, strewing damp white Kleenexes about her floor. Of course, Maurice could have asked Donna Grabowski to include her at the dinner. And, of course, Donna would have complied. How Kerrie would have liked to have seen herself at the gathering, hob-nobbing with senior faculty, talking about poets and writers, chatting amiably with Maurice, being nice enough to Olivia while boiling inside. She might have impressed her bosses, earned consideration for a lit class or a creative writing workshop. She didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in comp for the rest of her life. Not that there was anything wrong with comp.

Her tears dried. Kerrie’s thoughts then swerved back to the old affair, which no longer seemed as ardent as before. She gathered up the Kleenexes. They looked like a bouquet of wilted white carnations. She chucked them in the garbage.

The evening of Maurice Warminster’s John Keats Society reading at Gailor Community College, Kerrie chose a flattering knit dress of hunter green, which she accessorized with small gold hoop earrings and a paisley scarf. She came early and took an aisle seat in the second row. He would have to look her in the eye, at least for a moment. She would give him the book.

Donna, Maurice, Olivia, who was a beautiful woman, tanned, fit, smooth and poised, entered the auditorium followed by the rest of the departmental dignitaries. Students, faculty, community people, poets from the local flourishing coffeehouse scene, all chatting excitedly, packed the room. Kerrie waved to some friends. Trina, the student Kerrie was mentoring, beamed at her and gave her a thumbs up. Did she find it odd, knowing of Professor Shapiro’s ties to Maurice, that she was not part of the retinue?

As Warminster, wearing a black sport coat and gray shirt took his seat, Kerrie darted over to give him a hug. He smelled leathery. She whispered how good it was to see him. She pressed Little Secrets into his hand. He accepted her offering with a tentative smile, congratulated her, scanned the blurbs.

“And how good to see you, Kerrie.” His tone was formal, clipped. “Too long, too long. Have you met Olivia?” Olivia extended her bronzed hand and gripped Kerrie’s like a golf club. Then Warminster handed Olivia the copy of Little Secrets. Kerrie sizzled.

 Donna Grabowski approached the old lectern, which had a short corner. The moment she touched it, it wobbled. The water in the speaker’s glass jiggled as if from a mild earthquake. She welcomed the audience and introduced Warminster with wit, well-chosen quotations, a list of his major awards. Applause rose up when he approached the lectern. As soon as Warminster leaned his heft against the stand, it rocked and the water glass shook precipitously. “That lectern must be nervous,” he quipped. A wavelet of amusement rolled over the audience.

Then Warminster gripped the old and beautifully varnished wooden stand more forcefully, which made it seesaw even more due to its short corner. He grabbed the water glass before it fell on his books and papers. “Olivia, darling, could you find something to put under that corner?” Immediately, athletically, Olivia jumped up and jammed Kerrie’s book under the corner to stabilize the lectern. “Ah, at last a practical use for poetry,” said Warminster. The crowd tittered.

Incensed that Little Secrets had been cast to the ground and used as a shim, Kerrie, though not as gracefully as Olivia, sprang from her seat. People stared. Kerrie froze. Self-consciousness held her back, but only for a split second. Heart speeding, she dashed up and snatched her book from under the lectern. “How dare you shove my book under that stand!” she fired at Olivia.

A hush fell over the crowd.

“Excuse me. This is a reading by Maurice Warminster,” Olivia said severely.

“Now, Kerrie, come now,” chimed Maurice in mock admonishment. “Are you not a supporter of the arts?” Kerrie glared at him. Clucks of laughter came from a few in the audience.

“That’s my book. The book I wrote about us!” blurted Kerrie. “I will not have my book treated like that.”

Some shame noises, whoa’s and tsk’s spun up from a few in the audience. But the crowd was not all of the same mind. Other people stirred in their seats and spoke.

“Stand up for your book, miss,” someone called out.

“Don’t throw her book on the floor,” shouted Trina.

“Respect the book!” exclaimed a woman.

“Hey, you, sit down,” barked a male voice. “Show some respect to Mr. Warminster.”

“They should respect the book!” seconded a voice.

Astounded, Kerrie turned to face the audience. Though the tsk’ers still tsk’ed and hand-motioned her to sit down, a number of others clapped. Kerrie Shapiro felt jittery, vindicated, warmed, and excited by the attention.

Then someone pointed to Warminster. Kerrie spun around. As if he were Sir Walter Raleigh with his cape, the poet bent down and with a flourish slid one of his own books under the troublesome corner of the stand. “Look!” he announced with stagey gallantry. “Now I am a supporter of the arts.” A small swell of high-brow chuckling rose from the crowd.

Kerrie’s mood slid downward. Now he was getting the best of it. Well, good for him. Red-faced, gripping the book, she made her way down the center aisle, everyone turning their heads to stare. One step landed with shaky pride, one step in a puddle of embarrassment. When she made it back to her apartment, she had to use one hand to unclench the hand that had carried Little Secrets.

Unable to stand the sight of the book, she hid it under a pile of student essays. It seemed to smoke. She transferred it to a canvas book satchel. But there it seemed like a rabbit that might jump out of a hat. She finally zipped it into a suitcase, drank three glasses of wine, and passed out.

The next morning, her head a gray balloon, Kerrie found her social media packed with comments about the night before. The show had gone on, she learned, though it lacked a certain verve. Unable to read from the book beneath the lectern, Warminster had droned on, relying on lesser poems from the texts on the stand. And once the high comedy of the Kerrie kerfuffle passed, his patter fell flat. The post-reading buzz was all about Kerrie’s standup moment. Trina posted that the instant the reading ending, cell phones lit up all over the room like fireflies. Kerrie scrolled through the postings on her Facebook wall.

-Glad you rose up, Kerrie.

-Way to go.

-You were the best part of the night. Gawd, MW was so boooring.

-You caused quite a flap, ha!

-Everyone wants to buy your book.

A blogger took up Kerrie’s cause. By noon her Amazon rank shot way up. No such thing as bad PR. She was unsure of how much of all of this was scandal, how much triumph. But who cared? She smiled to herself, reveling in her newfound notice.

Still, the dedicated book, the troublemaker, the one in her suitcase, felt nuclear. But dump it in the recycling she would not. Forcing herself from bed, she took a hot shower, packed up for her afternoon comp class, put the copy of Little Secrets into a plastic bag, and headed for the Gailor College library. The autumn air felt fresh and cool. The afternoon sun showered gold on the velvety campus lawns. She told the acquisitions librarian, a man she’d seen a few times at coffeehouse poetry events, that she wanted to donate the book to the college library.

“Is this the book from last night?” he asked with an inhale of surprise. The librarian, a pale man with interested eyes, looked at Kerrie. “Are you sure you want to donate it?”

“Absolutely.” Relief washed over her as she pulled the fateful copy of Little Secrets from the bag. The librarian handled the book as if it were a precious artifact.

He explained to her that the book was part of literary history, at least as far as Gailor College was concerned. It would go into Special Collections. It would live in a locked glass case alongside other rare books, and, although it would not circulate, Kerrie could visit it whenever she liked. Kerrie thanked him, but she doubted that she should ever wish to touch that copy again. Still, the book’s new status as a museum piece appealed to her. She saw it as a beautiful green bird, killed by an arrow, taxidermied, protected under glass. Never to be thrown on the floor or cast aside. Meanwhile, all the others of its kind were free to fly.

 

 

 

Lynn Levin is the author of six books. Her poems, creative nonfiction, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Cleaver, Wild River River, Painted Bride Quarterly, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and other places. She has received twelve Pushcart Prize nominations. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.